Saturday September 14 2013
– She was not much more than a kid really, the drugged, drunk and depressed schoolgirl left at a suburban railway station in the early hours of the morning, hopelessly disorientated and incapable of finding her way home.
The Saturday night party had broken up hours earlier, the last train left long ago and her friend headed off in a taxi, unaware the teenager would be stranded.
Alone and long past rational thought, she finished her bottle of vodka and downed some Valium followed by prescription medication. The results were as predictable as they were life-threatening.
“Sue” staggered from the suburban railway station, falling over as she tried to cross the main street. It was about 2am.
Nearby a married couple and two friends were waiting for a taxi after a 30th birthday party at a Whitehorse Road restaurant when one spotted the girl, immediately commenting on how drunk she appeared.
Finally the 17-year-old collapsed outside a bank and simply couldn’t regain her feet. The four ran over to help and seeing that she was nearly unconscious tried to take control.
“We were concerned for her. She was young, drunk and alone. We all had Jill Meagher [who was abducted and murdered in Brunswick two months earlier] in the back of our minds and knew we couldn’t leave her,” one of the group, “Jane”, said.
The married couple even considered taking her home to sleep it off while one of their friends rang police for help. But as he did a taxi pulled up even though the driver had not been flagged down.
Experienced drivers try to steer clear of drunks and dramas but this one showed no concern at what he saw unfold in front of him.
The teenager was so incapacitated she couldn’t tell her helpers where she lived. Jane checked the teenager’s wallet, found the address and used the taxi’s GPS to find the directions home.
The whole process took 20 minutes and yet the driver waited patiently. A second cab pulled up to take the four remaining passengers home but lost interest after two minutes and left.
She was a dead weight when they put her in the car, even having to lift her
legs into the vehicle as she “just flopped in”.
One of the men gave the cab driver $50 he withdrew from the ATM for the fare and was assured it would more than cover the journey. Jane said the girl sprawled over the back seat and couldn’t sit up. No one could even attach a seat belt.
“We thanked the driver for waiting. He seemed really nice,” Jane said. As he disappeared the girl couldn’t be seen as she was still lying across the back seat.
The “patient” taxi driver drove about 15 kilometres to a leafy suburb before he pulled over in a quiet spot, apparently convinced his passenger would never remember what would take place.
And then he raped her – three times – in the back seat of the taxi the good Samaritans had hired to take her safely home.
“She was drunk and she was little – he knew she was an easy target. He saw his opportunity and took it,” Jane said.
Satisfied he would never be identified he then drove her home. Sue, who weighs less than 50 kilograms, may not have been physically strong enough to protect herself but she was mentally strong enough to refuse to hide from the truth.
When she woke, her first reaction was, “Oh my god, what just happened?” She told her parents and was examined by doctors who confirmed the attack.
She made a statement to police and despite the fact that about five minutes of the in-car security video was missing (the surviving vision showed the driver apparently trying to tamper with the system) he was arrested, interviewed and charged.
He refused to answer many questions but volunteered an obvious lie, “All I can say is, like, she was very much conscious…the whole way…since I picked her up until the time I dropped her.”
He was due to leave the country a few days after the attack. Whether this played on his mind when he turned on his helpless passenger will never be known.
At the County Court she was resilient enough to give evidence (at one point when she involuntary gagged watching some of the surviving taxi video she was warned such actions could prejudice a jury) and the 30-year-old taxi driver was convicted of all charges. He is yet to be sentenced.
“Being cross-examined was really bad. I was made to feel like a criminal,” Sue told The Saturday Age.
She recalls him stopping the car and making an offer of money for sex. “I said ‘No, way, take me home’,”. He then drove her to an area she didn’t recognise and assaulted her.
The case was overwhelming as it was not just her word against his.
As well as four good Samaritans’ evidence (they were tracked down through the $50 ATM withdrawal) that she was near collapse, police recovered footage from the bank’s external CCTV that showed her condition when she was bundled into the cab. And his GPS showed his path to the ambush.
In isolation this is a case of a predator effectively capturing the helpless victim he was paid to assist.
But it is not a case in isolation. It is so much more.
Experts say it may be happening as often as once a week in Melbourne, when incapacitated women are attacked in taxis that should be their havens.
Just after Christmas, Victoria’s then head of clinical forensic medicine, Dr David Wells, was comparing notes with two colleagues. All had just examined women allegedly sexually assaulted by taxi drivers in the previous few weeks.
It was enough to make Wells, a passionate defender of victims’ rights, wonder how deep was the problem.
Simply by conducting a records search using the word taxi or taxi driver they had 25 hits relating to cases over the previous three years.
“The vast majority of cases were victims aged 17 to 39 and most incidents occurred early Saturday or Sunday mornings,” Wells said.
Near retirement, Wells could have left a note for his successor.
But that is not in the nature of the doctor who has examined thousands of sex crime victims and believes the majority are treated poorly by the criminal justice system.
He checked the 25 cases on record and found 21 were “cognitively impaired” (by alcohol or drugs) while two were intellectually disabled. In the remaining two cases there were no recorded notes on the victims’ mental state of awareness.
Concerned, he contacted the Taxi Directorate and was told the figures were wildly underestimated. “They responded to me in writing that they received on average three complaints a month.”
Wells said even those cases would be under-reported as many victims would be unable or unwilling to lay complaints due to their cognitive incapacity.
“We have quite rightly drummed into people that they should not drink and drive but the by-product is that we are herding some into the pathway of predatory behaviour.
“There clearly is a group of taxi drivers who are targeting women at their most vulnerable.
“Women are entitled to know they are safe in all forms of public transport. Unless this is cleaned up, females may be tempted to use their own cars when they shouldn’t and end up in the mortuary.”
Wells said that when confronted, some of the drivers argued that sex was consensual, often claiming it was offered in lieu of the fare debt.
“There is a simple solution to that. Having consensual sex with a passenger should be a sackable offence while an assault is obviously a criminal one.”
The respected expert raised his concerns at a presentation to forensic specialists this year.
Several female members of the audience approached him later to say they had been offered money for sex or had been “groped” by cab drivers when travelling alone in taxis.
Police are aware of the problem and are convinced there is a small group of opportunistic drivers who are repeat offenders. Many attacks go unreported, they say, because the victims are embarrassed or believe their recollections are too sketchy to be credible.
Detectives also say there has been a spike in sex attacks near nightclubs where incapacitated women are assaulted in laneways or car parks.
In one case, two university students claimed to have been touched inappropriately at the end of a trip but police were unable to identify the company or the driver.
In another police investigation, the in-cab camera showed the driver opening and shutting the rear door more than 100 times in an empty car park in an apparent attempt to overload the memory capacity so the vision of his earlier attack would be lost.
One experienced taxi driver told this reporter the industry was well aware of the problem and had refused to act for years.
“It happens more than anyone thinks. We have all picked up young girls who have passed out. Our job is to get them home.”
He said he picked up a woman who managed to mumble her Williamstown street address before falling asleep after a hen’s night. “I drove up and down that street until I saw a light and they told me where she lived. Her husband
picker her up and carried her inside and she was still snoring.
“He gave me a nice tip and said thanks.”
– John Silvester